So there’s this fanfiction that I like a lot. It’s called “Happy Birthday Shadow!” By a user who used to call themselves Shadow the Hedgehog4. It’s a Sonic the Hedgehog fanfiction that is not all that interesting as a story, but it’s a story that I find myself reading more often than I read some of the novels on my favorite bookshelf. I think it’s because I have this weird fascination with things that are already mediocre, but I also believe that it’s the context of what happens to this fanfiction rather than what this fanfiction is that makes me really love this weird little story.
On YouTube, there is a video called “Very Bad Fanfiction” by THAC TV, where a group of slightly drunk people read the fanfiction aloud. This version of the story has added sound effects, a full animation of the events, added music, and some of the best jokes that I’ve seen come from a video of a reading of a sub par fanfiction. Most, if not all of the jokes come from these added parts, but they still pulled off of the basic idea of taking a concept that was written to be serious (a fanfiction about a character’s birthday) and turning it into a comedic masterpiece with the power of video editing, visual comedy, improvisation by impromptu voice actors, and alcohol. The video is in two parts, with the first one being only three minutes, so if you have the chance to look it up I highly recommend doing so. I personally love this video so much that I have friends will send me on my birthday it instead of a regular birthday message, because years ago I asked for it to become a tradition and years later I don’t regret forming that custom.
You might be wondering what this has to do with Gamer Girl. If I were to tell the whole truth, I’d say about 30% of the reason why I brought it up has to do with the fact that I want everyone to see that video and take notes on how anything can be a comedy with enough improvisation and editing. The other 70% has to do with a word that you might’ve heard before: Cringe. “Happy Birthday Shadow”’s source material has a moderate amount of it, and yet that amount is enough to propel the humor that the creators of “Very Bad Fanfiction” brought to the finish line. I’m going to explain what cringe is and what it really means in a second. First, I want to talk about Cause and Effect.
To put it lightly, Gamer Girl is one of the worst novels I have ever read. Rereading it was one of the most difficult tasks I had ever undertaken and the only thing more difficult than finishing the book was coping with the idea that I would have to pick it back up and reread passages just for the sake of reviewing it. If there was ever a term for the feeling when you are obliged to read something that makes you want to shove mechanical pencils underneath your eyelids, I believe it would be “put-down ability”. “Put-down ability” is the level at which a novel is able to lose interest enough for the reader to put it down and stop reading, and can be extended to the amount of how much that reader wants to pick that novel back up. Stephen King mentioned in his novel “On Writing” that he would keep a record of every time his wife would put down one of his manuscripts in order to do a chore, and then find those places in the manuscript and review them. This method seemed to work pretty well because he would often find the weaker passages in the moments where his wife would get distracted.
If I was to measure the “put-down ability” via Stephen King’s method, I would say that I put down Gamer Girl about every two pages, with a gap of about 5 to 35 minutes before I would gather the nerve to pick it back up. Mind you, the novel is 248 pages. If there were any questions about why it took me three weeks to review a book that barely qualifies as a novel, this paragraph alone should answer them.
From almost the beginning, to that slog of a middle, until the very end, cringe is in full effect here. Mari Mancusi has managed to make a story so powerful in its repulsion that I almost feel sad for both the book and the author. Somewhere in between the first and second week of working on this project, I had played around with the idea that Mancusi might have hired a ghostwriter. In the writing world, a ghostwriter is someone who will take a commission to do most of the writing legwork based around details given by whoever is commissioning them.
The only real reason that I thought this might be the case was because of how interesting I found the original plot and concept of Gamer Girl. What made the theory fall through is I could not get behind the idea that a ghostwriter would ever write prose this badly.
What causes the novel to bring forth a feeling akin to seeing someone you used to go to high school with about five years after you graduated? The answer to this brings me back to the summary that I left at the end of the first part of this review. If you like, you can go back and read. I’m not going to make you, because frankly, I don’t want to look at it either. As long as you remember the feeling you get when you read that, we can continue on from there.
There’s actually two causes behind the effect that we’re feeling. The first cause is lazy writing. The text within Gamer Girl is riddled with adverbs, clichéd statements, and the stalest of dialogue. The dialogue in particular is interesting in how uninteresting it is. There are various examples where conversations between characters exist either as thinly veiled plot points (such as a moment where a side character who barely knows the main character introduces her to a drawing contest because said character saw our MC drawing once, and then never talked about the contest to anyone else) or as statements that the author might have thought sounded cool outside the context of the novel, and added in without thinking about how it would (or wouldn’t) work with the rest of the narrative.
The way characters talk also betrays another problem that stems from and causes lazy writing, which is bad characterization. Possibly, if any of the characters besides our MC and our MC’s love interest had some semblance of depth, the prose would have benefitted. We have antagonists (uncool old teacher, preppy rich girl, unstable jock boy who is sadistic for no explained reasons) that could be swapped out with any high school villain character and have the plot be unaffected. As a result, both the dialogue and the flow of the writing suffer.
When you have predictable characters talking and acting in a predictable way, the only method of conveying information by telling. Anyone inside (or even outside) the writing world will say that “telling” information instead of “showing” it will kill a novel, and this is exactly what Gamer Girl does. It’s why Maddy’s character is all too often criticized of being an angsty character; we as an audience cannot connect with Maddy because 60% of the time we are told how she feels and we are told how hard things are for her, and as a result we don’t believe her. She is criticized for being a Mary Sue because everything positive falls into her lap for the sake of plot convenience and we are not shown enough of how she earned these positive outcomes. Not only that, but the introduction of plot elements that are already overused, such as divorce and bullying, makes the narrative worse because they are written the same way every coming-of-age writes them.
Despite me previously saying that I don’t mind some clichéd tropes, the overabundance of rushed writing gives me no chance to defend them. I can’t justify one shitty element if the other parts that are supposed to counterbalance it are also shitty. Had there been better prose, more fleshed out characters besides the main character and her love interest, and just more effort put into the flow of the novel as a whole, I would’ve been able to support those weaker plot points. Alas, we are stuck with characters that go “Squee!” very excitedly and villains that could be replaced with sentient cacti and most likely would have improved the story.
The second cause of the cringe that I feel deep within the fibers of my ironic Sonic the Hedgehog-loving soul is our dear author’s desire to be relatable. Now, there are plenty of correct ways to do this, and a coming-of-age story is one of the easiest genres to practice relatability. Everyone was a teenager before and everyone has had to deal with reality and how it clashes with the idyllic world of childhood. Wanting to relate to your audience is a good thing, and should generally always be in the background of an author’s mind whether they are writing or editing a manuscript. Not at the forefront, because there’s only so much a creator can do to relate to their audience before it becomes nothing but pandering. But some effort taken to connect with that audience.
The wrong way to relate to an audience is to use references, and even worse than that is to make dated references. Rather than make a genuine attempt to connect with an audience. Mari Mancusi pulls another stunt from her bag of lazy writing devices, and starts dropping the names of every high school craze from 2005 to 2007.
Listen, it is okay to put references in your works, and to a certain extent it is acceptable to drop names. One of the bigger reasons why artists tend to shy away from dropping names the way Mancusi does is due to copyright issues. Then again, the list of things that she managed to rip out of popular culture and transplant into her book includes:
- Abercrombie and Fitch
- World of Warcraft (Granted, it’s given the inconspicuous name of Fields of Fantasy, but I’m gonna assume that Mancusi is not talking about Final Fantasy XIV.)
- My Chemical Romance (Seriously, she mentions MCR so much that I’m legitimately concerned for what Mari did when they broke up. Does she know? Did anyone tell her?)
- Various manga and anime (With one instance of Shojo Beat being replaced by Sojo Beat, in an attempt to… avoid copyright issues? It’s back to “Shojo Beat” every time it’s referenced afterwards.)
- Actually, more than I can count. When I say that there is a reference on each page, I mean that as an average. It’s not uncommon to have part of a chapter talk about nothing but dated references, and are sometimes used as a form of telling. There is a legitimate reference that goes “At the same time I wished I could go back. Like in that movie The Matrix when the guy takes the blue pill.” Come on, Mari. You’re better than this.
The point is that these dated references are not just examples of more lazy writing, but contribute to a specific type of cringe. Call backs to infamous movies and disbanded bands generate the kind of cringe that one feels when looking back at what people thought was cool in 2007. Here, I’ll make a reference that will eventually be dated as well: Facebook Memories is a feature that takes old posts that a user has made, and brings them to the attention of the current user. Sometimes, these posts are not ones that the user wants to see. I know for a fact that there are statuses I’ve posted online five years ago that make me wish the internet had never been invented. This is the kind of cringe I’m talking about, and it’s the most prevalent kind of cringe in Gamer Girl. These dated references increase the overall feeling of cringe because it reminds the audience that the things that the MC (and as an extension, Mancusi) think are cool were also things that our past selves thought were cool.
Gamer Girl is a tragic novel, because it feels like it wants to take itself seriously yet comes across as a published fanfiction. It has an author avatar going back to high school and writing all the wrongs that she couldn’t in her own life, and in its quest for validation it takes its quality hostage. The most unfortunate thing about Gamer Girl is it has no dramatic reading, no adaptation to take its mediocrity and spin it into something enjoyable. It’ll never get noticed, no matter how much cringe it generates, and the public opinion of it will always stay at a 2/5 because no one cared enough to give it a second chance. It’s just… not worth it.
And yet, I still can’t let it go. Not even breaking the book down to its basic parts has helped me figure out why I kept it for so long. I would say that I was having flashbacks to when I gave away House of Leaves, but the obvious juxtaposition there is that I loved House of Leaves, and still do. If I supposedly hate Gamer Girl so much, why in the world would I have kept it, when logic dictates that I should’ve forgotten a month after I purchased it?
The answer to this question has everything to do with the phrase Mono no aware.
See you in Part 3.
Very Bad Fanfiction presents: Happy Birthday Shadow (part 1)- https://youtu.be/YBGTSJhi0EQ